Friday, May 29, 2009

Mountains and Rivers and Bears

Prior to Memorial Day, the three of us spent a week in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

The first two nights were spent in a cabin we rented near Townsend, Tennessee – a small town that has refused to be turned into a tourist trap. The cabin had a yard that was home to lots of cardinals and robins, and from there it was about a 10-mile drive to Cades Cove, a wide valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is one of God’s most beautiful creations.

We visited Cades Cove on Saturday and Sunday, and counted 92 deer and 38 turkeys between those two days. But more impressively, only 10 minutes into our Saturday visit we encountered this threesome of bears:

We saw two more bears on our Sunday visit to the cove, and then we saw three more on our way back to town. I know it's a bad idea to get close to them in the wild, especially when they are mother and cubs like all of these were, but fear never materialized for us. A couple times we were walking as close as 10 to 20 yards from them and they showed absolutely no interest in us. Maybe that was because the national park has lots of camera-toting tourists and does not allow hunting, and that combination causes bears in this neck of the woods to think people are just part of the scenery.

Tuckaleechee Caverns, a large cave beneath one of the summits outside of town, was another highlight of our time in the Townsend area. A lighted path allows you to walk through the cave on guided tours and see its interesting formations. We ducked through its cramped areas, stretched our legs in its spacious ones, and dipped our fingers in the underground river that flows through it.

On Monday we departed Townsend and drove the Foothills Parkway and Tail of the Dragon into North Carolina, where we arrived at my family’s cabin by mid-afternoon. The next day we went for a hike in Pinnacle Park, where a trail up a tall mountain follows the cascading waters of Fisher Creek.

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it all the way to the pinnacle itself because Sarah had a mishap when she attempted to pee in the woods. So we backtracked to the car and drove to Wal-Mart, to get her some new duds to wear on the ride back to the cabin.

We took it easy on Wednesday and my mom, sister and niece arrived that afternoon. After lunch on Thursday, the six of us headed across the top of Fontana Dam for a walk to Paynetown Cemetery. At road’s end is a trailhead from which three paths head off in different directions, with the route to the cemetery beginning as a gravel road just west of the other two paths.

As I slipped on my daypack, we heard the loud, crash-like sound of leaves on the forest floor being crushed and moved about. I walked to the edge of the road with Sarah in my arms, peered down into a wooded gulley, and saw a young bear come to a stop beneath an oak. Erika was next on the scene and she saw him too, but nobody else got a chance because he took off running downhill and was quickly out of view.

Everybody else was disappointed, but they needn’t have been. A few minutes into our walk we heard more crashing sounds, and before long we were staring at a mother and three cubs spread out on a hillside above us. These bruins, unlike the ones in Tennessee, did not trust us. One of the cubs darted up a tree, and then returned to the ground as the rest of his clan moved closer to him. Mama Bear never took her eyes off us.

We continued on our way, and after a half-mile or so spotted the trail to Paynetown Cemetery leading up a slope to the left. That trail is very steep but also very short (about 100 yards) and arrives at the small graveyard after rounding a bend. Sarah asked if Granddaddy is buried there and we told her he is not. Though Paynetown does have tombstones for a few folks who have died during my lifetime, it is, for the most part, an early-twentieth-century place of interment. Many children and newborns were laid to rest there, making it obvious how difficult life was in those days.

We encountered the bears again on our way back. They had moved to the other side of the road and, once again, a cub scrambled noisily up a tree to look around. Mama Bear was on the far side of the cubs and started walking toward them, which meant she was also walking toward us, and we wasted no time vacating the area.

Our first Friday venture (after stopping here to sample some excellent cheese) was a hike along Twentymile Creek and Moore Springs Branch. Our second was to let Sarah put her new Barbie fishing rod to use by casting its rubber butterfly weight into the Little Tennessee River. We casted downstream and the current was so strong that as we reeled the weight back toward us, the rod bent as though we had caught something.

We were happy to see that noticeable improvements have continued to be made at Fontana Village, an outdoorsy resort near the cabin, where you can sit on Wildwood Grill’s outdoor deck while eating homemade potato chips and delectable sandwiches (including a Reuben that Erika described as the best she’s ever had).

Because it’s late enough in the year that Florida no longer cools off much when the sun goes down, we enjoyed the refreshing coolness of mountain nights – even though the first few were downright cold! It was 37 degrees our first morning in Carolina, and warmed up to 82 that same afternoon.

Of the animals we bothered to keep a census of, our final tally was 13 bears, 93 deer, 39 turkeys, 16 Canada geese, 5 woodchucks, 4 rabbits, 3 pileated woodpeckers, and a bat. And Sarah did a fair amount of the hiking herself, even though I carried her on my shoulders for parts of each hike. A wonderful trip indeed!

To close this post, here’s a picture of her holding a blossom, which I picked from one of the tulip poplar trees at Fontana Village:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Always Remember The Fallen Brave

I will be traveling – and blessedly disconnected from the Internet – until Memorial Day. But it’s never too early or too late to think about what Memorial Day is all about: Remembering those who have died so we can be free, and understanding the awesome totality of their sacrifice.

There’s no better way to do that than reading this letter. It was written by Sullivan Ballou, a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, to his wife. One week later, he was killed in the Battle of First Bull Run.

July 14, 1861

Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And it is hard for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights…always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

Sullivan Ballou

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bloody Well Said Again

Last month I wrote favorably about some remarks Mark Steyn made on the radio.  In the 20 or so minutes I heard him today, he was on fire again.


Within seconds of me turning on the radio, he was saying that the politicians who are effective are not the ones who “move to the middle” – rather, they are the ones who move the middle closer to them.  I’ve never heard anyone make that point with such succinct clarity, even though its truth is obvious to anyone who knows history (after all, America never seriously entertained the idea of an active and far-reaching government until FDR, but after FDR was elected it virtually abandoned the notion of hands-off government until Reagan ascended a half-century later).


Steyn then went on to talk about something many of us have been saying for years:  That contrary to what the MSM would have you believe, the Republican Party is far more diverse than the Democrat Party.  But he made that point a bit differently – and a lot better – than most of us do. 


We often get caught up pointing out that the abortion issue proves Republicans are the tolerant ones, because our many pro-choice members are open about their position while the miniscule number of pro-life Democrats get muzzled and marginalized by their own party.  Or, we get caught up mentioning that contrary to what Democrats say on the stump, theirs is the “party of the rich” because the ostentatiously wealthy tend to be Democrats.


Though those things are true, what Steyn brought up was more consequential.  He pointed out that whereas the various Republican constituencies quibble about important matters like whether X is allowed by the Constitution or Y is a proper use of the military, all of the Democrat constituencies – no matter what their “bugaboo” issues may be – subscribe to the steroidal belief that the proper way to achieve their goals is to wield government power and spend other people’s money.  Hence, it is the Republicans who have a truly “big tent.”


Those of us who inhabit the right side of the political spectrum have all entertained these thoughts, even if they come to us in different words, and we all know that overcoming the current administration’s deceptive aggression will be an uphill climb.  To make that climb a success, we must remember the way Steyn described our situation when we sit down to strategize.